Hockey Tryouts. Blegh.
The deeper you get into this thing called youth hockey, the more coaches you know, the more players you know, and the more programs you know...
Add in the yearly drama that every team endures and, like, when it comes time for tryouts and selecting your target teams, it almost turns into a situation where you're not picking the best fit for your player or family but, rather, picking the least of all evils.
Price, roster, coach, reputation, location, league, rank, level, I mean...it all weighs into the decision.
And no one place -- again, if you've been around long enough -- will check off all of your boxes.
It sucks...like, stressful even.
I'm preaching to the choir, I know.
But I have a few ideas on what I'd like to see happen more frequently during tryouts...from the youth hockey programs out there.
First, stop using tryouts as a money making scheme.
$200 try out fees? Give me a break. What's the explanation there?
I've always been an advocate of trying out with multiple programs -- get your name out there, test drive a few places, maybe find a better fit, and always self evaluate where your child stands on the development curve.
Like, aim high. Tryout for that "elite" team. You never know...
But, that said, trying out for 5 teams...with 3 kids...well, it gets cost prohibitive.
If I were to follow my own advice and repeat what I'd done in previous years now, today, the month of March would set me back over two thousand dollars.
None of that expenditure would go towards the following season's tuition.
Now, I know they $150+ tryout fees you see so frequently serve two purposes -- one, obviously, is to make money. The second reason is to discourage tire kickers who have no intention of actually coming to your program.
I get it.
But...purposefully diminishing the number of people to show up...while also fleecing your near-guaranteed customers isn't exactly tactful either.
The true purpose of tryouts is, you know, to build a team. Or two teams. Or three teams.
Having more people show up, all on it's own, offers the opportunity to grow you business.
Lower the tryout fee considerably.
I think back to when my oldest son first started -- tryout fees were usually around $40. Maybe $50. This is less than a decade ago.
Fifty bucks for a few hours of ice time, no problem. I'll sign up for that everytime.
And, from a program's perspective, if you get just 10 kids to show up (and you will), at $50 each, you're paying for the ice and making a profit already, in most cases.
I'm no expert in running a hockey program...but I do own a small business and know that, often, a lower price generates more sales.
It's a pricing strategy and, yeah, it's a delicate year-to-year balancing act to nail down where the price point should be.
The last few seasons, around here anyway, decisions like that don't feel like they're thought out very well.
Feels like one program jacked their prices and everyone else followed suit...as they laugh at the parents shelling out this kind of money for what often times amounts to a pick-up hockey game.
Jacking the cost to $200 just feels obnoxious...cause it is.
C'mon... That's robbery.
It's just a bad look...that's totally unneccessary. Even tournament teams are doing this?!
Like, nothing turns off a hockey family more than plunking down $200 for a tryout and realizing 15 mintues in, it's not a tryout at all.
No one is making this team.
Evaluations aren't even happening.
And, no, you can't keep the jersey.
Fun fact -- we stuff the jersey in our bag after tryouts like that. They're great for pick-up hockey sessions that only cost $15 for a full hour. Shhh...don't tell.
To date, I've only had one program reach out after the fact asking for the jersey to be returned.
I politely responded that I paid them $200 for a $7 practice jersey and 11 minutes of actual ice time, thanks.
They never respond after that.
I may be in the wrong for "bagging" the jerseys...but they know they're the criminals robbing people blind.
Up next is the scheduling of tryouts. Is it just me, or does it feel like programs purposely put their tryouts on overlapping nights at overlapping times so that you can't really be a "free agent" or dip your toes elsewhere?
Again, relating to my region, teams move their tryout dates and times based on what other teams announce first.
Like, team A will say we're having tryouts on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday and you pay your fee. Perfect.
Team B, that you're also super interested in, announces their tryouts will be Tuesday, Friday and the following Monday...and you're like, sweet...that's perfect.
We can totally do both, no overlap, and see where we land at each program. You pay that fee too.
Then, literally, a day later that program "updates" their dates to announce that they're holding tryouts on Monday, Thursday, and Friday now.
Okay, that sucks...but we'll try to make it work.
And then your safety net of a team -- the one you'll play for if you don't get selected at the other two -- announces that they're also holding tryouts that week on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
What do you do now?
You're literally backed into a corner -- you need to pick one...and start stressing over it.
A week later, all three programs start shuffling their dates -- it's very stressful to know what to do and frustrating too as the target is constantly moving.
I'll be honest -- never skip the first night of a tryout. Never.
And never just show up to a single night and expect great results.
And that's where they get you..and it feels intentional.
I don't know if it is...but it certainly comes across that way.
There's a facility nearby, we've never played out of it, that hosts four different youth hockey programs. Their age specific tryouts overlap by a half-hour every single year...making it impossible to tryout for two (or more) of them at once.
I mean, that's a case of too many teams and, no matter how you slice it, they all end up with watered down rosters but, like...they've done it to themselves.
Use tryouts to "sell" your program.
I'll be honest -- when my oldest was 6 years old, we attended a tryout for the closest elite team to our house. I was coming in blind and did not expect my kid to be in contention for a roster spot -- I just wanted him to give it a shot.
Less than 15 minutes into that tryout, I was blown away.
We WERE going to play here. We were NOT going back to the program we'd skated with the prior season.
The on-ice coaching was so superior to what we'd had, even if my kid had not made the team, we'd have strived to make it the following seasons.
They sold me -- and it wasn't some smarmy sales pitch to the parents.
I see right through those. Lip service.
One program around here had this one guy constantly tout "We play in the top league in the country..." Yeah, yeah, yeah...whatever, pal.
If you ever hear a boast like that coming from a program, seek out a parent with older children playing hockey and ask them to validate it.
So, for us, the program that we initially move to -- the Connecticut Chiefs, it's not a secret -- sold me on the drills, the skills of their current players, and the blindingly obvious competence of the on-ice coaches running the whole thing. Sold.
You want as many eyes as possible at your tryouts..and to sell your product to them during your one week of tryouts.
So, here's what I would do if I ran a program (and if you've been a hockey parent, you know that's common area of discussion)...
I'd set my tryout fee to as low a dollar amount as possible to break even on the ice time if just 20 players show up.
Do the math -- let's say an hour of ice is $450 in mid March. Book three nights.
Cost is $1350.
Area programs, some in the same exact building, are offering tryouts for $150.
We'll go high. You come in at $75, undercutting the competition.
At $75, to break even, you only need 18 players to commit. Chances are, if your previous season coach wasn't Voldemort (sadly, we encountered him at the Chiefs too), your retention rate is pretty solid.
We'll say 9 players are coming back, pretty much, no matter what.
Now you only need 9 kids to break even. That's...easy.
At $75, for three hours of instruction on ice, seasoned hockey parents are going to show up.
You're gonna have a lot more than 9 "new" players register for your tryout.
Now I know what you're thinking...tire kickers will come in just for the cheap ice. Players will "use" your tryouts as a warm-up for the tryout they're really aiming for.
And, yes, that will happen, absolutely...but this is your opportunity to showcase what you can offer and how your program is different and, ideally, better than the other options players have.
This is your chance to hook them...while they're on your ice, with your coaches, and their parents are all along the glass keenly evaluating.
Nothing is sweeter than a tryout filled with kids in various coloured helmets.
The last few years -- I'll even say they past 5 years -- every single tryout we've been too has had over 90% of the kids on the ice sporting the same helmet stickers. It may as well be town based rec-level little league. Movement is minimal.
But that's the fault of the programs -- no one seems to be trying to break out or grow.
And the few that are making that attempt keep making the same mistakes -- super high tryout fee on the exact same nights as everyone else.
I'd announce first, fee and schedue...stick to that schedule...and then add one or two more nights (eat the cost) after everyone else has announced to be on less crowded dates and times...and wait and see what everyone else does to cover over your dates.
Rival programs will panic and get squirrelly...but your "outside the box" program should stick to it.
More ice, less cost...people will show up.
And the scheduling is tough -- I know how this all works. For years, we didn't even have to go to tryouts. Contracts had already been offered weeks in advance.
And it's important to have your tryouts, the first night anyway, early so you don't lose out on those folks that fall for the "expiring offers" other program put out after night one.
The classic hard sell tactic -- you have 24 hours to sign this contract... All pushy BS. Don't fall for immediate pressure.
It's just another tactic where programs don't want you checking out other places.
Mite and squirt parents fall for that stuff because they just don't know. If your kid is a decent player -- you're 100% in control.
But, unfortunately, the reality for my bantam is that the four teams he'd consider playing for all have tryouts during the first week of April.
All of them. April 4, 5, 6, and 7.
There is no way to attend them all.
I won't go deep into the fact that April 7th is a Good Friday this year...and most school systems have the following week off so some families will be away on cruises or whatever...or that, well, a majority of players have been sitting idle since the start or March...or that neighboring states, Massachusetts, have their tryouts three weeks earlier cause, well, they just do their own thing, always.
USA Hockey is to blame for much of this -- setting dates that tryouts are allowed to commence...but, I'm gonna be straight with you...
The teams that make it to the Nationals aren't holding "real" tryouts anyway. 99% of those rosters are closed.
Any tryout for those teams is a truly a money grab.
Here's the actual "rule" for 2023:
No youth or girls Tier I or Tier II team may recruit or solicit players or offer hockey contracts to players for the 2023-24 season, or hold development camps, tryouts, player selections or any activity that could be construed as a tryout/solicitation or recruitment for the 2023-24 season, prior to 3:45 p.m. ET on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
So, here's what's comical about this...
My kids teams have routinely skirted these rules. I've had hockey contracts as early as January.
Tryouts don't "exist" at the higher levels. They don't. Insider secret...it's invite only. You know a guy that knows a guy that vouches for your kid. Shhh! Don't tell.
Further, every ID Skate or free "skills" session you've had your kids participate in since December is, in fact, a solicitation and recruitment tactic for the following season. Nearly every single program is doing it...
Where do you think all of those email solicitations you're getting this month originated? It's a pretty straight line.
My son's current teams play mostly in a USA Hockey conference right now...but as an undeclared team...so we're not even invited to the dance. That alone should exempt us from this silly rule.
But, even if we were declared, and let's pretend that we are...we're not Tier I.
We're not Tier II level either, this season.
We're a mediocre 300-something ranked team.
Fact is, most youth hockey players don't fall into either of those categories, in contention for a Tier I or Tier II championship...but are held to their rules.
Sure, some podunk hockey programs might have lofty dreams of making it to the U14 Championship game...but that's not a reality for all but maybe five or six programs.
In the entire country.
Yet, here we are.
Every rule following program in the country holding tryouts at the exact same time, over a month after their teams have played their final games...because two teams still haven't had their season end yet.
Kinda silly, right?
And then you think about all of the teams and tournaments kids will be playing for and in that are outside the realm of USA Hockey throughout the month of March...
Is that allowed? Like, nearly every team and coach has a tether to a USA Hockey program... Warm up jackets and helmet stickers don't lie. Where does that fall? I think that "could be construed as a tryout/solicitation or recruitment".
I won't even go there...
No, wait...I will. These are the events where you make connections to that guy that knows a guy that saw your kid play once two summers ago and vouches for him...to get an invite only offer to a national bound tier I team that technically isn't allowed to be recruiting...per USA Hockey rules.
So what do you do, as a parent?
Why would the programs do this? Why does USA Hockey make them ALL do this?
Why are they all charging so much?
Just beyond our comfort zone for travel, there's a team with $40 tryouts the following week. Another team that plays at our level just announced their tuition -- rougly a third of what I'm paying now. Oh, and their tryouts don't overlap either. And they announced their for next season coaches too!?
Those teams get it.
They're gonna get numbers and I'll tell you, every tryout we've ever attended that has over 100 players show up...ends up with a really talented top team.
Instead, we'll be participating sparsely attended tryouts where the kids there each night are totally different...cause they've got a tryout somewhere else.
And us parents are out nearly $1000 dollars for the experience.
A little goofy, huh?
Lower the tryout fee considerably.
Host your tryouts on less travelled dates and times.
Announce your coaches.
Be open and transparent. If only 4 kids have registered for tryouts and a team is looking unlikely -- $200 tryout fees have that effect -- tell the registrants that now so they can make other plans.
Don't make lofty promises. You don't want the families that fall for that stuff anyway and no one appreciates the bait-and-switch methods so many youth hockey programs routinely pull.
Call out tire kickers on day one -- find out what their motive is -- and also politely guide the families that are out of their league elsewhere quickly.
But also openly admit there will be supplemental tryouts a week later, too.
Like, announce that now. In February. Announce it now.
Every hockey family knows another hockey family that put all of their eggs in one basket...and didn't get an offer...and had to scramble to find a program that, you know, they would have tried out for but, well, scheduling conflicts and all.
I mean, everyone loves a good blindside...except when it happens to them.
I've seen a lot of really solid players head into the second week of April...without a team to play for. AAA players.
Announce it now that you'll have a supplemental tryout AFTER everyone else. Offer that safety net.
You'd be surprised at the talent that strolls in...and they'll be thankful for the opportunity too. That leads to loyalty...and those are the customers that should be valued most. Especially if the player is talented too.
At a certain point, it's about building a long term successful business rather than filling a trophy case or running out of room to hang vinyl banners.
I mean, walk into any older rink and you can see banners on the wall or in the rafters that showcase a dynasty, year over year...and then suddenly...nothing. Most recent banner that isn't a league participation banner is from the mid 1990's.
We both know what happened...
Too many teams competing for too few players and everything I mentioned above started to take hold...
End result -- poorly attended tryouts, lots of players stranded on the wrong teams, and watered down rosters everywhere.
This season, specifically, has really stood out for us. Two or three years ago, we'd lose to a top 10 team in the nation by a score of 5-1 and feel like we got smoked. This season, double digit goal differentials have become commonplace...within the same league!
And it's not just the league we play in that lacks parity. It's rampant in youth hockey if you lurk in any of the hockey parent forums online.
Now, I know I've lambasted MyHockeyRankings.com on here before but I'm fully aware that there are an awful lot of parents that think it's a credible source of, I dunno, bragging right verification or something.
For one of my kids, we moved from a team that was ranked 16th in the state to a team that's ranked 29th. Nationally, with that move, we dropped nearly 300 places.
Those numbers, on their own, indicate that we're going backwards.
But we're not...
My kid didn't get worse. He actually got better.
It's probably every third week or so, for this entire season, I'm asked -- why is he on that team? I've had another coach ask it, even.
I chalk it up to the way tryouts are held and teams are formed these days where even the low end teams (as young as squirt level) are more about knowing a guy that knows a guy or having a coach's ear and not at all about being evaluated at the sole set of team tryouts you're able to attend due to financial or scheduling constraints.
I made the right choice and the wrong choice, concurrently, on behalf of my kids this past season. I didn't call in a favor. I'm okay with that.
But I'm also thankful I know a few guys...but, concurrently, disgusted that that's a necessary route to take if I feel the need to...which I don't.
Top flight teams have mediocre players riding the pine.
Mediocre teams have top end players.
Not sure that was ever the intent...any where.
A program out there should start changing that. I think a few already have...
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